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Danny Trejo's Body: Immigrant Males, the Border, and Citizenship in the American Imagination

In this article, we discuss the symbolic and material forms this war against immigrants manifests itself in the United States. Using the films of Danny Trejo and most importantly what happens to his body in these films, we posit that it is possible to read the multiple forms anti-immigrant sentiments are performed and enacted in American popular culture since the late 80s.

by Nohemy Solórzano-Thompson and Tia K. Butler

In a beginning sequence in Robert Rodríguez's latest exploitation film, Machete (2010), a corrupt politician and a group of vigilantes are viciously hunting down a group of undocumented immigrants as they cross into the United States in the middle of the night. “You are trespassing on my daddy's land” says the lead vigilante, as he shoots a young woman. “Jesus, Von, can't you see she is with child?” says the politician in an indignant tone. Von responds, “If it's born here, it gets to be a citizen, no different than you and me,” as he continues gunning down the immigrants indiscriminately. His biggest fear is that “Texas will become Mexico once again.” The entire sequence is being video-taped by one of the vigilantes, and the politician decides to participate in the shooting on camera in order to show some of his high-dollar campaign supporters he is doing his part to stop this invasion of Mexicans.

This over the top scene capitalizes on the irrational fear that immigrants are threatening the lifestyle of the affluent Anglos who own the land now. Ironically, as the film shows, that land and its businesses are in fact worked mainly by people of Mexican descent. And some of them did not cross the border, as the ICE agent played by Jessica Alba states in her unlikely change of heart at the end of the film, “The border crossed us!.” The violence displayed against immigrants throughout the film is visually visceral. And at times, it is so exaggerated that it borders on the comical. Most of the violence is either experienced or perpetuated (often simultaneously) by the main character Machete, portrayed by veteran Mexican-American actor Danny Trejo, known worldwide for playing the dangerous Mexicano in countless exploitation films.

Throughout the film, Machete is shot, stabbed, blown-up, chased, drugged, dragged, and hit multiple times, but he emerges victorious at the end, wielding his weapon of choice, his namesake machete as a crowd of Mexican immigrant men applaud him while also wielding machetes, all experiencing a moment of victory after defeating the racist vigilantes. As the film closes, Machete drives off on a motorcycle to everywhere he is needed – with Jessica Alba on his lap. As the credits roll, the audience is reminded that more carnage is to come as the fake sequels Machete Kills and Machete Kills Again are advertised. But the true message is also registered, the violence against immigrant men will continue, so Machete needs to avenge and protect them. If it was only a fiction, one might feel tempted to laugh lightheartedly at this exploitation film. The true horror is that truth is worse than fiction. There is a real war against immigrants in the United States being fought today.

On April 23rd, 2010, Governor Jan Brewer signed The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (often referred to as SB 1070), into law beckoning a new age of anti-immigrant politics in the United States. This new law required that “aliens” carry all appropriate documentation of legal status at all times and went a step further to allow officers, without the burden of probable cause, to stop any person on the street and demand to see their documentation. Such laws have been popping up all across the country, but Arizona’s law cruelly refuses civil liberties to thousands of people in America. This is a legal avenue to exploiting immigrants, but is far from being the scariest thing to happen in the United States. Much like the vigilante group we see in Machete, vigilante groups have been growing in size and number all across the United States/Mexico border. These groups have begun to take signals from laws like SB 1070 and enact their own form of border security, proving the violence at the border in Machete is real; people are gunning down immigrants as they cross into the United States, and leaving their bodies in the borderlands.

Possibly worse is the lack of concern police forces have for the hundreds of undocumented corpses they find in the desert. An example of the violence of the vigilante groups on the border are the 2007 murder videos that surfaced on youtube. The videos depicted two members of the Minuteman Project, one of the largest vigilante groups in the United States, gunning down Mexican people near the California/Mexico border. The video, eerily similar to the video being made in Machete, has since been proven to be fictional, but is still a disgusting example of the xenophobic nature of the United States today. The atrocities Robert Rodriguez displays are very real. In this article, we discuss the symbolic and material forms this war against immigrants manifests itself in the United States. Using the films of Danny Trejo and most importantly what happens to his body in these films, we posit that it is possible to read the multiple forms anti-immigrant sentiments are performed and enacted in American popular culture since the late 80s. Danny Trejo is the perfect example of the fascination within mainstream media about Mexican male immigrant bodies. Rodríguez's film is only one of a series of films that use Trejo's body as a response mimicking the symbolic war against these bodies as expressed in recent political and cultural discourses. It is in fact his body that makes Trejo a site for contemporary anxieties about citizenship, immigration, and masculinity. As an interview by Nate Jones for Time magazine on September 2, 2010, stated, “You may not know his name, but you certainly know his face. With his chiseled physique, long hair and handlebar mustache, Danny Trejo is one of the most recognizable character actors working today.” As this quote and countless other articles, interviews, and reviews bluntly suggest, Trejo is not only recognizable, he is recognizably Mexican.

Trejo's handlebar mustache and the prominent tattoo on his chest of a woman wearing a sombrero are key parts of the actor's performance and characterization. Trejo himself often jokes about the necessity for him to show off his tattoos and the insistence of directors to feature him shirtless. In the tongue in cheek interview with Nathan Rabin for the A.V. Club from April 28, 2010, Trejo and Rabin discuss many of the random roles he has played over the years. Trejo remarks how in the set of his first film Runaway Train (1985) the fake tattoos of the professional extras kept smearing as he trained them. As his were real, he was asked to leave his shirt off for his scenes.

The Los Angeles-born and raised Trejo had previously done time at San Quentin prison and his body showed the signs of his previous life as a drug addict, convict, and small-time criminal. His minor acquaintance with writer Eddie Bunker at San Quentin prison helped him secure his role in Runaway Train, as Bunker remembered Trejo's fighting abilities. After that film, Trejo was cast to basically play a version of his younger self in a series of commercial movies. As he jokingly told Jones in the Time interview, “I think for the first five years of my career I played Inmate Number 1. And that was a dirty role.” But it was that role that made him the star he is today.

In all of Trejo's films, his body becomes a metonymy for the immigrant Mexican male and what happens to that body reflects the fears about the Other as imagined in the American mainstream psyche. As William V. Flores and Rina Benmayor aptly state in their introduction to Latino Cultural Citizenship (Beacon Press, 1997), Latinos/as are not only perceived as not having American citizenship because of their ethnic, linguistic, and cultural differences, they are also seen as Other because of their public performance of latinidad. In other words, being Latino/a and performing a Latino/a identity is cause for being perceived as non-citizen, which is sadly, an attitude the Arizona laws and others are attempting to legally justify. Trejo's cinematic performance in a sense reaffirms a particular Latino stereotype that suggests immigrant men are dangerous and in need of restraint; although it is also possible to read in his portrayals a counter-narrative that provides both a criticism of such a stereotype and provides affirmation for peoples of Mexican descent in the US.

At the beginning of Trejo's career in the mid to late 80s, most of his films had him as a prisoner or other type of violent offender. It is no accident that those films coincided with a major immigration reform and the start of an economic depression brought by the aftermath of Reaganomics. Trejo's nameless characters of the time reflected this time of economic insecurity and the development of an emerging public discourse around immigration and the place of Latinos/as in American society, especially in California where most of Trejo's films were set.

At the time, California was steadily becoming one of the most heavily immigrated to states. The Center for Immigration Studies released a comprehensive report about the immigration patterns to California throughout the 80’s and early 90’s. By 1990, California had over eight million immigrants representing 25% of the state's total population and one-third of the total population of immigrants in the United States. The study also showed that of the eight million, only half were documented, meaning there were unprecedented numbers of immigrants coming to the United States illegally. This report, one of the only comprehensive reports of its kind, spoke very negatively of the effects of immigration on California. The report stated that while the influx of immigration increased job availability in California, the immigrants also took over 85% of the created jobs, reducing job opportunity for natives. The report also claimed that throughout the 80s immigration lowered wages in California. This study started an early xenophobic rage in California, causing negative media and political attention on the immigration struggle.

Thus in the late 80s, amidst this xenophobic feeling, Trejo played characters on the offensive, attacking first without any provocation, and often shot through prison bars: effectively a portrayal of a caged animal fighting to get out and destroy the viewer. These films were meant to mine the paranoia of the time against the growing Latino/a population. Trejo's body, at his physical prime, became both an object of desire and abjection. The camera often lingered on his well-toned muscles and showcased his fighting abilities, while simultaneously also showing Trejo as a being capable of the most shocking violence.

By mid to late 90s, public discourse had once again changed and Trejo's films reflected the new era's discourse. The 90s marked the passage of The North American Free Trade Agreement. The NAFTA agreement was considered the magical wand that would eliminate all immigration issues between the United States and Mexico. However, post NAFTA, there was a sudden and very unexpected rise in illegal immigration to the United States. This was shocking to many because as Alejandro Portes, a writer for the Social Science research Council wrote for the SSRC website in July of 1996, The North American Free Trade Agreement was to make Mexico rich and create enough employment incentives to keep its people at home. It has been anything but. More than ten years after the signing of the treaty, economic growth has been anemic in Mexico, averaging less than 3.5 percent per year or less than 2 percent on a per capita basis since 2000; unemployment is higher than what it was when the treaty was signed; and half of the labor force must eke out a living in invented jobs in the informal economy, a figure ten percent higher than in the pre-NAFTA years. NAFTA only accomplished guaranteeing cheap labor for the United States and destroyed Mexico’s already weak economy. This caused a splurge in illegal migration to the United States, ending any hope of fixing the broken immigration system.

The 90s, along with an increase of immigration, brought an increase of public fear and hatred of immigrants. Public concern about immigration quickly became focused on the demands of unauthorized or illegal immigrants put on public services. This led to the 1996 legislative acts The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity act and the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. Passed closely together, these acts worked together to make sure illegal immigrants were excluded from all federally funded benefits, immediately increasing the United States overall rate of poverty.

The acts of 1996 were considered a win for nationalist Americans who feared immigrants more than the strain on publicly funded services. Due to the laws, there was an immediate xenophobic effect on the public. The people of the 90s suddenly feared immigrants and wanted to contain the immigration rate as much as possible, and they felt they had a congress who would back their xenophobic efforts. Soon after NAFTA President Bill Clinton also began to take a hard stance on illegal immigration. President Clinton stated, We must not tolerate illegal immigration. Since 1992 we have increased our Border Patrol by over 35%; deployed underground censors, infrared night scopes and encrypted radios; built miles of new fences; and installed massive amounts of new lighting. We have moved forcefully to protect American jobs by calling on Congress to enact increased civil and criminal sanctions against employers who hire illegal workers. Since 1993, we have removed 30,000 illegal workers from jobs across the country.

In January of 1996, Clinton released the above statement, republished in his book Between Hope and History (Random House Publishers, 1996). Clinton increased border security throughout the 90s but also successfully created an American public who feared for their jobs. The public suddenly became convinced immigrants were after their jobs furthering the anti-immigrant sentiment in the United States that would follow us into the new millennium. Reflecting the anti-immigration tone of the 90s, in the prison escape film Con Air (1997), Trejo plays Johnny “Johnny-23” Baca, a vicious serial rapist who keeps tabs of his victims through hearts on his arm tattoos. His character is so despicable that even the other violent convicts attempting the escape keep him chained and segregated. The main villain played tells Trejo that he despises rapists and that Trejo is “somewhere between a cockroach and that white stuff that accumulates in the corner of your mouth when you are really thirsty.” Furthermore, throughout the film, Baca threatens to rape the female prison guard multiple times as he cannot control his criminal urges to harm women; the villain tells him after the prisoners take over that he will throw Baca off the plane if he rapes her. After the plane crashes, Trejo is viscerally killed and dismembered. The only part of him left is his tattooed arm hanging from a chain.

Con Air features a group of extremely dangerous criminals, and yet, it is Trejo who becomes signaled as Other. The first time he is shown, he is actually addressed by the villain in Spanish, thus establishing the extent of his Otherness. In comparison, the Hannibal Lecter-like serial killer played by Steve Bucemi is immediately freed from his restraints by order of the villain. The serial killer is portrayed with humor, as having deep insight into the human psyche, and extreme self-awareness. During a layover from the plane escape, the serial killer has a heart-warming scene where he plays with a little girl and sings with her. As the plane leaves, the young girl waves her doll good-bye at her new-found friend. Some of the other characters similarly get screen time to showcase some of their multifaceted natures. Meanwhile, Trejo's character has no sympathetic scenes nor bonding moments. Instead, he is the outsider that needs to be segregated and the audience is expected to laugh and cheer when he is dismembered.

In the post-911 American psyche, Trejo once again emerges as a different incantation of the Mexican male immigrant. Since 9-11 the American sentiment towards immigrants has only worsened. In April of 2005, The Minuteman Project founded by Jim Gilchrist began to monitor the flow of illegal immigration across the US/Mexico border. Self described as “a citizens’ Neighborhood Watch on our border,” the Minuteman project has been involved in several violent acts towards immigrants and has only escalated in numbers since the Arizona Laws.

In 1992, a report was put together by the INS (now ICE) entitled "Brutality Unchecked: Human Rights Abuses Along the U.S. Border with Mexico". This report, though dated, described a lack of oversight on the border allowing the border officials to get away with coercive and often abusive treatment of immigrants at the border. The report further concludes that the public hysteria about illegal border crossing has produced a climate where the abuse of illegal immigrants is accepted. Furthermore since 9-11 people have began to conceptualize immigrants as possible terrorists, disease-ridden, or responsible for the influx of crime in the United States today. All of the aforementioned examples are ridiculous, but public hysteria convinces people that immigrants can only lead to trouble. This public sentiment has given rise to anti-immigrant legislation. SB 1070 is just one example of the litany of new laws that have sprouted up against immigration and illegal aliens. New Mexico, Texas, and even Georgia are currently considering similar laws to make it impossible for illegal immigrants to safely be outside on American soil.

Laws against immigration reform are not the only legislative example of anti-immigrant sentiment. The US congress has continually refused to act on Comprehensive Immigration Reform, or immigration reform of any kind. The DREAM act, which would allow undocumented students citizenship if they agreed to go to college or into the military, failed to pass because of the xenophobic belief that it would take away jobs from native workers. The twenty-first century marks a time when we are unwilling to help immigrants, we are refusing to reform a broken system, and we are becoming increasing xenophobic with the rise of vigilante groups and anti-immigrant legislation. Typical of this time, Trejo stars in films like xXx (2002) and The Devil's Rejects (2005) once again capitalizing on the fear anti-immigrant groups created. Yet, not all of Trejo's portrayals are a blatant exploitation of Mexican men that portrays them without agency.

Without a doubt, Trejo's performances in the films of Robert Rodríguez play with the stereotypes established by the multitude of other films Trejo has made. The names of these characters attempt to symbolically reaffirm Mexican masculinity through bluntly phallic names: Machete, Navajas, Cuchillo, Razor. Through these films, Trejo once again is violently attacked and often killed; yet, there is a level of irony to these portrayals that is not apparent in the other commercial films. Trejo has both agency and the capacity for humor in these portrayals. It is apparent he is in fact enjoying the film. Machete coincides with the rise of anti-immigrant laws and a new sentiment against Latinos/as in the US. The film itself was criticized because it depicted a potential “race war” – but the true meaning behind those criticisms is that it featured such a war as one won by Mexican immigrant men. However, putting aside this fantasy, the real issue at hand is that what happens to Trejo's body in his films is in fact happening to Mexican immigrant men in the borderlands. They are the victims of multiple acts of violence, exclusion, and racism.

The victory scene in Rodríguez's film featuring Trejo with his machete in his hand, recalls the end of the “Ballad of Gregorio Cortez,” “Mis armas no las entrego / hasta estar en calaboz.” Mexican immigrant men are being hunted down literally and symbolically, and unless we do something about it, we too are complicit in this war.

Nohemy Solórzano-Thompson is Associate Professor of Spanish and Tia K. Butler is a Spanish major at Whitman College.
Photo of Danny Trejo at 67th Venice Film Festival from .

Copyright © Nohemy Solórzano-Thompson and Tia K. Butler. All rights reserved.